Kids learn in many different ways. Some do best with information they hear. Others may find it easiest to learn by seeing something. Multisensory instruction is a term schools use to describe ways of teaching that engage more than one sense at a time.
How does multisensory instruction work?
Learning often relies on a child’s sight to look at text and pictures and to read information. It also relies on a child’s hearing to listen to what the teacher is saying.
Multisensory teaching isn’t just limited to reading and listening. Instead, it tries to use all of the senses. Every lesson won’t use all of a child’s senses (taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing and movement). But in most multisensory lessons, students engage with the material in more than one way.
For example, let’s say your child’s class is studying apples. Your child might have the chance to visually examine, touch, smell and taste apples—instead of just reading and listening to his teacher speak about how they grow. Then he might hold a halved apple and count the number of seeds inside, one by one.
That’s multisensory teaching. It conveys information through things like touch and movement—called tactile and kinesthetic elements—as well as sight and hearing.
What subjects is multisensory instruction used for?
Many programs designed to help struggling readers include a multisensory approach (in addition to other components). Orton–Gillingham pioneered this approach. Programs like these very deliberately use sight, sound, movement and touch to help kids connect language to words.
For example, one of the techniques the Wilson Reading System uses is a “sound-tapping” system. Students tap out each sound of a word with their fingers and thumbs to help them break the words down.
The Barton Reading Program materials include color-coded letter tiles that help students connect sounds to letters.
But multisensory instruction is used to teach other subjects, too. Some grade school math programs use manipulatives (small objects like interlocking cubes or shape blocks) to help kids do math.
Science labs, in which kids perform experiments, write down the steps and report their findings, are multisensory learning experiences.
Even songs and chants that teach things like the days of the week or the names of the states are examples of multisensory learning.
Who can benefit from multisensory instruction?
All kids can benefit from multisensory lessons, including kids who don’t have learning and attention issues. If a student learns something using more than one sense, the information is more likely to stay with him.
But multisensory learning can be particularly helpful for kids with learning and attention issues. For example, these kids may have trouble with visual or auditory processing. That can make it hard for them to learn information through only reading or listening.
Using multiple senses gives these (and other) kids more ways to connect with what they’re learning. This type of hands-on learning can make it easier for students to:
- Collect information
- Make connections between new information and what they already know
- Understand and work through problems
- Use nonverbal problem-solving skills
Multisensory instruction helps kids tap into their learning strengths to make connections and form memories. And it allows them to use a wider range of ways to show what they’ve learned.
Multisensory teaching takes into account that different kids learn in different ways. It helps meet the varying needs of all kids—not just those with learning and attention issues. And by providing multiple ways to learn, it gives every kid in the class a chance to succeed.